Near exclusive focus on RMG sector, other factories neglected
The activities of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) under the Ministry of Labour and Employment are barely visible, despite widespread reports of poor working conditions at local factories.
The department is supposed to approve factory layouts, address labour complaints, investigate occupational accidents, and ensure a decent working environment at all factories and workplaces. DIFE has performed the role adequately for factories in the RMG sector, especially those that are export-oriented, but all other kinds of factories have been neglected.
Furthermore, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year, DIFE has only inspected factories to enforce Covid-19 health guidelines and visited the sites of fires only after the damage had already been done.
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, additional research director at Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), has urged the government to hold DIFE and business owners accountable for breaches of workplace safety rules.
He also called for the formulation of a plan to ensure safety compliance at all factories.
Asking to remain anonymous, a senior DIFE official admitted that RMG factories were the main priority, but he also said inspections of other kinds of factories were being ramped up due to reports of frequent accidents.
The activities of the DIFE, or lack thereof, came into the limelight after the fire that killed at least 52 workers at the Hashem Foods Ltd factory in Narayanganj earlier this month.
Tuhinur Rahman, Labour Inspector (safety) of DIFE Narayanganj office, said the DIFE only came to know about the irregularities at the Narayanganj factory after being informed by the Fire Services.
He further said the DIFE could only initiate a drive at the factory after the department office instructed its officials to do so.
DIFE Deputy Inspector General Soumen Barua said: ““It is true that we visited factories to see whether they are maintaining Covid-19 health safety guidelines. We also form inquiry committees to inspect factories after we receive safety complaints.”
DIFE Inspector General Nasir Uddin Ahmed declined to comment.
Are DIFE’s hands tied by labour law and manpower shortages?
DIFE sources have said their hands are often tied when it comes to taking action against incompliant factories, as labour laws favour the interests of business owners.
“Owners know how far we can go. There have been instances where factory officials threatened us during inspections,” said an official.
Moreover, the court cannot impose a fine higher than Tk25,000 as per the existing law, while the minimum fine is as low as Tk10 for some offences.
In addition, the Labour Court is overburdened with cases, which is slowing down punitive action. There are about 20,000 cases pending with the court, even though cases are supposed to be disposed of within 60 days.
The law allows for case proceedings to be extended by a further 90 days if there is a valid reason for the delay.
“It takes far too long for non-compliant factories to be fined if they are fined at all. This situation is unacceptable,” said another DIFE unofficial.
DIFE officials also say they have been plagued by a shortage of manpower since its inception. The organogram of the department remained unchanged from 1970 till 2013.
Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, DIFE’s manpower was increased from 314 to 993, including 575 inspectors.
These staff members have to inspect more than 90,000 factories and establishments across the country.